Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve 1914

The meeting of enemies as friends in no-man's land was experienced by hundreds, if not thousands, of men on the Western Front during Christmas 1914.  Today, 90 years after it occurred, the event is seen as a shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of World War One - a spontaneous effort by the lower ranks to create a peace that could have blossomed were it not for the interference of generals and politicians.

Imagine you are standing knee deep in the slime of a perpetually waterlogged trench.  It is the evening of 24 December 1914 and you are on the dreaded Western Front (which started at the North Sea and stretched to the Swiss border with France).  

You wade across to the firing step and take over the watch.  You exchange pleasantries with your colleague as he shuffles off, bleary eyed toward his dug out. 

You listen for a few moments and your confusion gives way to surprise as men from both sides start singing carols and songs.  Next you hear requests not to fire your weapon...could it be a truce?  Why yes, it is! Along many parts of the line the Truce was spurred on with the arrival in the German trenches of miniature Christmas trees - Tannenbaum.  The sight these small pines, decorated with candles and strung along the German parapets, captures everyone's imagination, and soon the unthinkable happens: you start to see the shadowy shapes of soldiers gathering together in no-man's land (between the trenches) laughing, joking and sharing gifts. 

Many have exchanged buttons and cigarettes, the lit ends of which burn brightly in the inky darkness.  Plucking up your courage, you haul yourself up and out of the trench and walk towards the foe...

On Christmas Day the truce was initiated through sadder means.  Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man's land and seek out the bodies of their comrades and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another.

The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends to rest was complete, the fraternisation began. With the Truce in full swing up and down the line there were a number of recorded games of soccer, although these were really just 'kick-abouts' rather than a structured match. Sadly,
it was not long before the fighting began again.

Today, many see the Truce as nothing more than a temporary lull induced by the season of goodwill, but willingly exploited by both sides to better their defenses and eye out one anothers positions.  Still others believe the Truce was an effort by normal men to bring about an end to the slaughter.

In the public mind the facts have become irrevocably romanticized and perhaps this is the most important legacy of the Christmas Truce today.  In our age of uncertainty, it comforting to believe, regardless of the real reasoning and motives, that soldiers and officers told to hate, loathe and kill, could still lower their guns and extend the hand of goodwill, peace, love and Christmas cheer.

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